We’ve spent a few articles on Universe Today talking about just how difficult it’s going to be to travel to other stars. Sending tiny unmanned probes across the vast gulfs between stars is still mostly science fiction. But to send humans on that journey? That’s just a level of technology beyond comprehension.
For example, the nearest star is Proxima Centauri, located a mere 4.25 light years away. Just for comparison, the Voyager spacecraft, the most distant human objects ever built by humans, would need about 50,000 years to make that journey.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t anticipate living 50,000 years. No, we’re going to want to make the journey more quickly. But the problem, of course, is that going more quickly requires more energy, new forms of propulsion we’ve only starting to dream up. And if you go too quickly, mere grains of dust floating through space become incredibly dangerous.
Based on our current technology, it’s more likely that we’re going to have to take our time getting to another star.
And if you’re going to go the slower route, you’ve got a couple of options. Create a generational ship, so that successive generations of humans are born, live out their lives, and then die during the hundreds or even thousands of year long journey to another star.
Imagine you’re one of the people destined to live and die, never reaching your destination. Especially when you look out your window and watch a warp ship zip past with all those happy tourists headed to Proxima Centauri, who were start enough to wait for warp drives to be invented.
No, you want to sleep for the journey to the nearest star, so that when you get there, it’s like no time passed. And even if warp drive did get invented while you were asleep, you didn’t have to see their smug tourist faces as they zipped past.
Is human hibernation possible? Can we do it long enough to survive a long-duration spaceflight journey and wake up again on the other side?
Before I get into this, we’re just going to have to assume that we never merge with our robot overlords, upload ourselves into the singularity, and effortlessly travel through space with our cybernetic bodies.
For some reason, that whole singularity thing never worked out, or the robots went on strike and refused to do our space exploration for us any more. And so, the job of space travel fell to us, the fragile, 80-year lifespanned mammals. Exploring the worlds within the Solar System and out to other stars, spreading humanity into the cosmos.
Come on, we know it’ll totally be the robots. But that’s not what the science fiction tells us, so let’s dig into it.
We see animals, and especially mammals hibernating all the time in nature. In order to be able survive over a harsh winter, animals are capable of slowing their heart rate down to just a few beats a minute. They don’t need to eat or drink, surviving on their fat stores for months at a time until food returns.
It’s not just bears and rodents that can do it, by the way, there are actually a couple of primates, including the fat-tailed dwarf lemur from Madagascar. That’s not too far away on the old family tree, so there might be hope for human hibernation after all.
In fact, medicine is already playing around with human hibernation to improve people’s chances to survive heart attacks and strokes. The current state of this technology is really promising.
They use a technique called therapeutic hypothermia, which lowers the temperature of a person by a few degrees. They can use ice packs or coolers, and doctors have even tried pumping a cooled saline solution through the circulatory system. With the lowered temperature, a human’s metabolism decreases and they fall unconscious into a torpor.
But the trick is to not make them so unconscious that they die. It’s a fine line.
The results have been pretty amazing. People have been kept in this torpor state for up to 14 days, going through multiple cycles.
The therapeutic use of this torpor is still under research, and doctors are learning if it’s helpful for people with heart attacks, strokes or even the progression of diseases like cancer. They’re also trying to figure out if there are any downsides, but so far, there don’t seem to be any long-term problems with putting someone in this torpor state.
A few years ago, SpaceWorks Enterprises delivered a report to NASA on how they could use this therapeutic hypothermia for long duration spaceflight within the Solar System.
Currently, a trip to Mars takes about 6-9 months. And during that time, the human passengers are going to be using up precious air, water and food. But in this torpor state, SpaceWorks estimates that the crew will a reduction in their metabolic rate of 50 to 70%. Less metabolism, less resources needed. Less cargo that needs to be sent to Mars.
The astronauts wouldn’t need to move around, so you could keep them nice and snug in little pods for the journey. And they wouldn’t get into fights with each other, after 6-9 months of nothing but day after day of spaceflight.
We know that weightlessness has a negative effect on the body, like loss of bone mass and atrophy of muscles. Normally astronauts exercise for hours every day to counteract the negative effects of the reduced gravity. But SpaceWorks thinks it would be more effective to just put the astronauts into a rotating module and let artificial gravity do the work of maintaining their conditioning.
They envision a module that’s 4 metres high and 8 metres wide. If you spin the habitat at 20 revolutions per minute, you give the crew the equivalent of Earth gravity. Go at only 11.8 RPM and it’ll feel like Mars gravity. Down to 7.8 and it’s lunar gravity.
Normally spinning that fast in a habitat that small would be extremely uncomfortable as the crew would experience different forces at different parts of their body. But remember, they’ll be in a state of torpor, so they really won’t care.
Current plans for sending colonists to Mars would require 40 ton habitats to support 6 people on the trip. But according to SpaceWorks, you could reduce the weight down to 15 tons if you just let them sleep their way through the journey. And the savings get even better with more astronauts.
The crew probably wouldn’t all sleep for the entire journey. Instead, they’d sleep in shifts for a few weeks. Taking turns to wake up, check on the status of the spacecraft and crew before returning to their cryosleep caskets.
What’s the status of this now? NASA funded stage 1 of the SpaceWorks proposal, and in July, 2016 NASA moved forward with Phase 2 of the project, which will further investigate this technique for Mars missions, and how it could be used even farther out in the Solar System.
Elon Musk should be interested in seeing their designs for a 100-person module for sending colonists to Mars.
In addition, the European Space Agency has also been investigating human hibernation, and a possible way to enable long-duration spaceflight. They have plans to test out the technology on various non-hibernating mammals, like pigs. If their results are positive, we might see the Europeans pushing this technology forward.
Can we go further, putting people to sleep for decades and maybe even the centuries it would take to travel between the stars?
Right now, the answer is no. We don’t have any technology at our disposal that could do this. We know that microbial life can be frozen for hundreds of years. Right now there are parts of Siberia unfreezing after centuries of permafrost, awakening ancient microbes, viruses, plants and even animals. But nothing on the scale of human beings.
When humans freeze, ice crystals form in our cells, rupturing them permanently. There is one line of research that offers some hope: cryogenics. This process replaces the fluids of the human body with an antifreeze agent which doesn’t form the same destructive crystals.
Scientists have successfully frozen and then unfrozen 50-milliliters (almost a quarter cup) of tissue without any damage.
In the next few years, we’ll probably see this technology expanded to preserving organs for transplant, and eventually entire bodies, and maybe even humans. Then this science fiction idea might actually turn into reality. We’ll finally be able to sleep our way between the stars.
In the movie “Avatar”, we could tell at a glance that the alien moon Pandora was teeming with alien life. Here on Earth though, the most abundant life is not the plants and animals that we are familiar with. The most abundant life is simple and microscopic. There are 50 million bacterial organisms in a single gram of soil, and the world wide bacterial biomass exceeds that of all plants and animals. Microbes can grow in extreme environments of temperature, salinity, acidity, radiation, and pressure. The most likely form in which we will encounter life elsewhere in our solar system is microbial.
Astrobiologists need strategies for inferring the presence of alien microbial life or its fossilized remains. They need strategies for inferring the presence of alien life on the distant planets of other stars, which are too far away to explore with spacecraft in the foreseeable future. To do these things, they long for a definition of life, that would make it possible to reliably distinguish life from non-life.
Unfortunately, as we saw in the first installment of this series, despite enormous growth in our knowledge of living things, philosophers and scientists have been unable to produce such a definition. Astrobiologists get by as best they can with definitions that are partial, and that have exceptions. Their search is geared to the features of life on Earth, the only life we currently know.
In the first installment, we saw how the composition of terrestrial life influences the search for extraterrestrial life. Astrobiologists search for environments that once contained or currently contain liquid water, and that contain complex molecules based on carbon. Many scientists, however, view the essential features of life as having to do with its capacities instead of its composition.
In 1994, a NASA committee adopted a definition of life as a “self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution”, based on a suggestion by Carl Sagan. This definition contains two features, metabolism and evolution, that are typically mentioned in definitions of life.
Metabolism is the set of chemical processes by which living things actively use energy to maintain themselves, grow, and develop. According to the second law of thermodynamics, a system that doesn’t interact with its external environment will become more disorganized and uniform with time. Living things build and maintain their improbable, highly organized state because they harness sources of energy in their external environment to power their metabolism.
Plants and some bacteria use the energy of sunlight to manufacture larger organic molecules out of simpler subunits. These molecules store chemical energy that can later be extracted by other chemical reactions to power their metabolism. Animals and some bacteria consume plants or other animals as food. They break down complex organic molecules in their food into simpler ones, to extract their stored chemical energy. Some bacteria can use the energy contained in chemicals derived from non-living sources in the process of chemosynthesis.
In a 2014 article in Astrobiology, Lucas John Mix, a Harvard evolutionary biologist, referred to the metabolic definition of life as Haldane Life after the pioneering physiologist J. B. S. Haldane. The Haldane life definition has its problems. Tornadoes and vorticies like Jupiter’s Great Red Spot use environmental energy to sustain their orderly structure, but aren’t alive. Fire uses energy from its environment to sustain itself and grow, but isn’t alive either.
Despite its shortcomings, astrobiologists have used Haldane definition to devise experiments. The Viking Mars landers made the only attempt so far to directly test for extraterrestrial life, by detecting the supposed metabolic activities of Martian microbes. They assumed that Martian metabolism is chemically similar to its terrestrial counterpart.
One experiment sought to detect the metabolic breakdown of nutrients into simpler molecules to extract their energy. A second aimed to detect oxygen as a waste product of photosynthesis. A third tried to show the manufacture of complex organic molecules out of simpler subunits, which also occurs during photosynthesis. All three experiments seemed to give positive results, but many researchers believe that the detailed findings can be explained without biology, by chemical oxidizing agents in the soil.
Some of the Viking results remain controversial to this day. At the time, many researchers felt that the failure to find organic materials in Martian soil ruled out a biological interpretation of the metabolic results. The more recent finding that Martian soil actually does contain organic molecules that might have been destroyed by perchlorates during the Viking analysis, and that liquid water was once abundant on the surface of Mars lend new plausibility to the claim that Viking may have actually succeeded in detecting life. By themselves, though, the Viking results didn’t prove that life exists on Mars nor rule it out.
Most of the methane in Earth’s atmosphere is released by living organisms or their remains. Subterranean bacterial ecosystems that use chemosynthesis as a source of energy are common, and they produce methane as a metabolic waste product. Unfortunately, there are also non-biological geochemical processes that can produce methane. So, once more, Martian methane is frustratingly ambiguous as a sign of life.
Extrasolar planets orbiting other stars are far too distant to visit with spacecraft in the foreseeable future. Astrobiologists still hope to use the Haldane definition to search for life on them. With near future space telescopes, astronomers hope to learn the composition of the atmospheres of these planets by analyzing the spectrum of light wavelengths reflected or transmitted by their atmospheres. The James Webb Space Telescope scheduled for launch in 2018, will be the first to be useful in this project. Astrobiologists want to search for atmospheric biomarkers; gases that are metabolic waste products of living organisms.
Once more, this quest is guided by the only example of a life-bearing planet we currently have; Earth. About 21% of our home planet’s atmosphere is oxygen. This is surprising because oxygen is a highly reactive gas that tends to enter into chemical combinations with other substances. Free oxygen should quickly vanish from our air. It remains present because the loss is constantly being replaced by plants and bacteria that release it as a metabolic waste product of photosynthesis.
Traces of methane are present in Earth’s atmosphere because of chemosynthetic bacteria. Since methane and oxygen react with one another, neither would stay around for long unless living organisms were constantly replenishing the supply. Earth’s atmosphere also contains traces of other gases that are metabolic byproducts.
In general, living things use energy to maintain Earth’s atmosphere in a state far from the thermodynamic equilibrium it would reach without life. Astrobiologists would suspect any planet with an atmosphere in a similar state of harboring life. But, as for the other cases, it would be hard to completely rule out non-biological possibilities.
Besides metabolism, the NASA committee identified evolution as a fundamental ability of living things. For an evolutionary process to occur there must be a group of systems, where each one is capable of reliably reproducing itself. Despite the general reliability of reproduction, there must also be occasional random copying errors in the reproductive process so that the systems come to have differing traits. Finally, the systems must differ in their ability to survive and reproduce based on the benefits or liabilities of their distinctive traits in their environment. When this process is repeated over and over again down the generations, the traits of the systems will become better adapted to their environment. Very complex traits can sometimes evolve in a step-by-step fashion.
Mix named this the Darwin life definition, after the nineteenth century naturalist Charles Darwin, who formulated the theory of evolution. Like the Haldane definition, the Darwin life definition has important shortcomings. It has trouble including everything that we might think of as alive. Mules, for example, can’t reproduce, and so, by this definition, don’t count as being alive.
Despite such shortcomings, the Darwin life definition is critically important, both for scientists studying the origin of life and astrobiologists. The modern version of Darwin’s theory can explain how diverse and complex forms of life can evolve from some initial simple form. A theory of the origin of life is needed to explain how the initial simple form acquired the capacity to evolve in the first place.
The chemical systems or life forms found on other planets or moons in our solar system might be so simple that they are close to the boundary between life and non-life that the Darwin definition establishes. The definition might turn out to be vital to astrobiologists trying to decide whether a chemical system they have found really qualifies as a life form. Biologists still don’t know how life originated. If astrobiologists can find systems near the Darwin boundary, their findings may be pivotally important to understanding the origin of life.
Can astrobiologists use the Darwin definition to find and study extraterrestrial life? It’s unlikely that a visiting spacecraft could detect to process of evolution itself. But, it might be capable of detecting the molecular structures that living organisms need in order to take part in an evolutionary process. Philosopher Mark Bedau has proposed that a minimal system capable of undergoing evolution would need to have three things: 1) a chemical metabolic process, 2) a container, like a cell membrane, to establish the boundaries of the system, and 3) a chemical “program” capable of directing the metabolic activities.
Here on Earth, the chemical program is based on the genetic molecule DNA. Many origin-of-life theorists think that the genetic molecule of the earliest terrestrial life forms may have been the simpler molecule ribonucleic acid (RNA). The genetic program is important to an evolutionary process because it makes the reproductive copying process stable, with only occasional errors.
Both DNA and RNA are biopolymers; long chainlike molecules with many repeating subunits. The specific sequence of nucleotide base subunits in these molecules encodes the genetic information they carry. So that the molecule can encode all possible sequences of genetic information it must be possible for the subunits to occur in any order.
Steven Benner, a computational genomics researcher, believes that we may be able to develop spacecraft experiments to detect alien genetic biopolymers. He notes that DNA and RNA are very unusual biopolymers because changing the sequence in which their subunits occur doesn’t change their chemical properties. It is this unusual property that allows these molecules to be stable carriers of any possible genetic code sequence.
DNA and RNA are both polyelectrolytes; molecules with regularly repeating areas of negative electrical charge. Benner believes that this is what accounts for their remarkable stability. He thinks that any alien genetic biopolymer would also need to be a polyelectrolyte, and that chemical tests could be devised by which a spacecraft might detect such polyelectrolyte molecules. Finding the alien counterpart of DNA is a very exciting prospect, and another piece to the puzzle of identifying alien life.
In 1996 President Clinton, made a dramatic announcement of the possible discovery of life on Mars. Clinton’s speech was motivated by the findings of David McKay’s team with the Alan Hills meteorite. In fact, the McKay findings turned out to be just one piece to the larger puzzle of possible Martian life. Unless an alien someday ambles past our waiting cameras, the question of whether or not extraterrestrial life exists is unlikely to be settled by a single experiment or a sudden dramatic breakthrough. Philosophers and scientists don’t have a single, sure-fire definition of life. Astrobiologists consequently don’t have a single sure-fire test that will settle the issue. If simple forms of life do exist on Mars, or elsewhere in the solar system, it now seems likely that that fact will emerge gradually, based on many converging lines of evidence. We won’t really know what we’re looking for until we find it.